Massive web courses might not deliver on social mobility

Zac Lowell
Whether by accident or design, it seems to me that most online learning platforms succeed more in capitalizing on real anxieties than they do at uplifting the marginalized.
Zac Lowell

If you’re thinking about taking an online course in order to move up the socio-economic ladder, you may want to reconsider. According to two reports released earlier this month — one a study published in the journal Science and the other a literature review compiled by professors from George Mason University and Skidmore College in the US — online-degree programs and massive open online courses (MOOC) are not exactly providing the stepping stones toward economic mobility that proponents had hoped.

Among other findings, these reports state that already-disadvantaged students underperform in fully-online courses, while employers still weigh online credentials less favorably than those obtained in real-life classrooms. Also, those who benefit most from online education are already highly motived, self-disciplined individuals, many of whom already live in developed, affluent countries. Most other students will drop out or not finish the courses they’ve registered for, as has long been the case within the online learning industry. What’s more, weakening federal standards in the US could make it easier for online institutions to exploit disadvantaged learners and student aid programs in the future.

Such works add to a growing body of critical literature which points to a simple but painful truth: the revolutionary, egalitarian promise of uniting technology with education is still far from being realized. From the looks of it, the disadvantaged remain disadvantaged, while those with drive and determination (two socially valued attributes which are often associated with privilege in the first place) obtain advancements which they may have just as easily have obtained elsewhere.

Those with a more cynical frame of mind could, perhaps, reach a darker conclusion: that the “disruptive” dream of empowerment pushed by online-learning advocates was simply another form of techno-utopian snake oil. Indeed, it wasn’t that long ago that many “smart” thinkers in tech were boosting a similarly starry-eyed idea: that inexpensive computers and tablets would lead to a revolution in learning and skill obtainment among impoverished and disadvantaged students in the Global South. As for the results of such schemes, I invite readers to research the ill-fated history of the “hundred dollar laptop” and draw their own conclusions.

This is not to suggest that altruism and benevolent motives don’t exist, or that everyone who sees egalitarian potential in technology is being naive or deceitful. I’m also not saying that online courses are necessarily a waste of time, as I’ve taken several myself over the years and generally found them to be rewarding.

My point is rather that those who claim that technology is sufficient to alter society miss a critical point: Technology is embedded within society, not the other way around. In other words, technology serves society; and social hierarchies built and re-enforced over generations will not bend easily to “disruption” by apps, streaming videos and customer-service chat bots. Whether by accident or design, it seems to me that most online learning platforms succeed more in capitalizing on real anxieties than they do at uplifting the marginalized.

Online classes

Looking back, it’s easy to see why so many people bought into its early promises. The notion that anyone, anywhere, anytime can access high-quality educational content is certainly compelling. For those who might not have time or money to pursue a traditional classroom-based degree, online learning options may seem particularly attractive. Moreover, in our current age of dwindling opportunity, precarious employment and enforced “flexibility,” many American workers are under pressure to constantly “up skill” and add to their CVs. Some MOOC platforms are also filled with advertising phrases such as “build your career” or “learn the skills employers want.” Popular media in the US often spoke of the benefits of online classes in no uncertain terms — one prime example, a Boston Globe editorial from late 2017 carried the rather unambiguous headline “Online learning can ease economic inequality.”

Parallel to this was an industry-supported trend to bring tablets and online services into primary and secondary school classrooms under the banner of STEM (science, technology, education and math) education. Some school districts in the US have spent millions of dollars alone on iPads. No doubt many policymakers and school administrators went along with this trend because, after all, it’s their job to offer solutions and prepare students for “tomorrow’s jobs.” Tablets and related devices may have some benefits for learning, but they have not been shown to raise test scores or grades in any significant way. Despite ambitious results, I would argue that their increasing ubiquity contributes to an impression that education becomes more meaningful when mediated through technology.

At the end of the day though, what fueled the growth of online education was perhaps no different from what drives spending on most forms of education: the notion that credentials are sufficient for success. The entrepreneurial ethos embedded within neoliberal economics has also convinced us that investments in oneself are investments in one’s future earning potential and value in the job market.

Education and knowledge do generally lead to more wealth and higher standards of living; but let’s not kid ourselves that all education and all credentials are equally valued. The hierarchy of diplomas and certificates is especially pronounced in the US where, as mentioned above, education has become more a commodity than a social good. Further to this, people are disadvantaged in different ways, and for different reasons, which means that education is not a cure-all against the various forms of marginalization which communities and individuals experience.

While I can’t speak of the intentions of every learning institution or every online teaching platform, we should be skeptical of private, profit-oriented interests that make big claims. Tech companies, venture capitalists, start-up hustlers and “disruption” evangelists are not charity workers, even if the products they promote are meant to serve benevolent ends. Online courses and e-learning have the potential to be truly meaningful; but at the end of the day, social uplift and greater equality of opportunity won’t come from the tech sector. Realizing such goals require will and vision from politicians and society at large, as well as the courage to unearth the systemic roots of inequality.

As I write this now, China is experiencing its own boom in online education. Online courses have the potential to be rewarding and enriching for curious minds, but my hope is that such courses are marketed responsibly in China. Education is a valuable thing, but its value is hard to quantify. Unfortunately, in the private education industry, this leaves the door open for companies to over-promise on what their courses can deliver. My hope is that sensible, realistic expectations prevail.

The author used to work as a copy editor at Shanghai Daily.

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